Judge questions takeover of courts

Bell urges lawmakers not to rush to assume some operating costs

Hearing on Glendening bill

February 26, 1999|By Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn | Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest-ranking judge balked yesterday at a Glendening administration plan to gradually assume the costs of running the state's circuit courts -- including Baltimore's troubled system.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell told the House Appropriations Committee he is concerned that the bill is a step toward consolidation of the state's 24 circuit courts into one system.

Maryland should not move in that direction without studying the issue first, he said.

The judge stopped short of saying he flatly opposed the legislation, but he made clear he objects to key provisions and said he feels the General Assembly should not rush to act during its current 90-day session.

"We do oppose [doing] anything this session because we don't have a comprehensive look at the issue," Bell said in an interview after the hearing.

He testified on an administration bill to have the state take over the cost of several court functions now paid for by local governments.

The bill is seen as a step toward fulfillment of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's promise during last fall's campaign to have the state take over all the costs of the circuit courts -- an increasing burden on cash-strapped Baltimore.

Bell's presentation followed a plea by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to approve the bill. Schmoke cited "severe structural problems" in Baltimore Circuit Court that the city cannot afford to address on its own.

Recent articles in The Sun have detailed widespread delays in trials in the Baltimore system, that led to the dismissal of charges against criminal defendants in several violent incidents.

Bell insisted that the judiciary did not want to hinder any attempts to clear Baltimore's clogged court, but he said he did not believe that the bill before the Assembly helped the problem.

"We are determined to get back in operation," Bell said. "We are interested in efficiency as well."

The Glendening bill would require the state to take over from local jurisdictions the costs of salaries and benefits for jury commissioners, assignment commissioners and circuit court masters in the budget that the governor will propose next January.

The legislation would also increase the state's contribution toward the daily payment to jurors from $5 to $15.

Bell said that while the judiciary supports the jury-pay provision, it opposes parts of the bill under which jury and assignment commissioners hired after July 2000 would become state employees.

Those hired before then would not have to become state workers. This "grandfather" provision is designed to protect some commissioners in better-paying counties who might otherwise lose money under a state pay scale.

Bell objected to this provision, saying it could lead to a two-tier pay system and salary disparities.

He also expressed concern that the state is moving toward a consolidation of the circuit courts -- as recommended in 1996 by the Commission on the Future of Maryland Courts -- without any long-term plans or strategy.

"I don't know what's on the table," Bell said. "I don't know what this does for us or to us."

The Glendening bill drew strong support from the Maryland Association of Counties, whose members would be relieved of about $15 million in yearly costs under the legislation.

MACO dismissed concerns that the expanded state presence in the courts would be an intrusion on judicial prerogatives. It said the bill handled the personnel issues "logically and fairly."

Schmoke, who has pushed for state funding of the courts for 10 years, said the bill is less than he was looking for. But the mayor said he believes it will help the troubled Circuit Courts.

"I do think this is an incremental step in the right direction," Schmoke said.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads a subcommittee that oversees court budgets, said there is strong support in the General Assembly for a unified circuit court system run by the state.

"Circuit courts are now like little nation-states out there -- accountable to no one but themselves," he said. If the legislature is going to provide the money for the system, it will want more accountability from judges, he said.

Consolidating the circuit courts could lead to the establishment of an administrative judge over all of them, and judges could lose some of their autonomy.

Somerset County Judge Daniel M. Long, vice president of the Circuit Court Conference of Judges, said a poll of the circuit judges showed most were against changing the status of the jury and assignment commissioners.

"The conference has problems with local jury and assignment commissioners becoming state employees," Long said.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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